There is no clear line of development from which one can trace a steady evolution of form and language in FOBA's work. From its debut to the present, the firm displays a mastery of problem solving and an eagerness to turn every limitation into an opportunity. Each project has its own unique character and descriptive name, which are as varied as the sites and the needs of the owners.
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FOBA's buildings respond to the physical constraints or freedoms of a specific site and to the contradictory desires of the owners for openness and enclosure, intimacy and distance. That mixture of objective and subjective conditions is filtered through dialog with the client.
At the start of each job, the project architect will not visit the site without first hearing the owners explain why they want to live there and how. In describing the location, the clients reveal aspects of themselves and the elements that concern them the most. Umebayashi then makes his own evaluation of the site and begins sketching ideas.
"In our work, space volumetric, dynamic, and continuous comes first," declares Umebayashi. "The movement of a human body through a building defines the space and connects physical reality to psychological perception." This fusion of aesthetic and sensory experience prompts a comparison with contemporary choreography, which has redefined the language and intentions of dance, as FOBA has done for architecture.
"Organ," the first project Umebayashi designed as an independent architect, is both the paradigm of and the home to his practice. Located on a characterless site in Uji, southeast of Kyoto, it comprises two separate but related buildings: Organ 1 is an office that currently houses FOBA's ten architects, and Organ 2 is a larger structure for an unrelated engineering company.
The Organ complex is a boldly modeled expression of organic volumes: a Rubik's Cube of interlocking boxes, projecting bays, lanterns, and gables, lofted on steel columns and clad in the corrugated metal that is often used for panel trucks. Its pilotis free the ground for parking, visually lighten the structure, and allow it to be viewed from almost any angle.
The complex looks back to "metabolism," a design movement espousing modular construction based on biological metaphors that enjoyed brief notoriety in Japan in the 1960s and 70s. The Organ complex hints at the megastructures and plug-in capsules of Kenzo Tange and Kisho Kurokawa but seems less the product of industry than of craft.
The one-off, hand-made assemblage of simple geometric forms makes a clear separation between the metallic skin and the inset wood frames. Its interior resembles a concourse with open spaces eddying off, twisting and rising through a promenade from one end of the building to the other.
Return to Tradition
"Skip" is a house in northern Kyoto that presents an equally enigmatic face to the street: a white concrete box, lofted above a carport and broken only by a thin ribbon of windows and a single porthole to one side.
Narrow concrete stairs lead up from within the house, and broad wood-tread steps rise from behind the main gate. They provide complementary routes through and over the multiple levels of the building and meet at a roof terrace that looks down to the street and back over tiled roofs and encircling mountains. The exterior steps flow over the house, revealing rooms below and to the side, as though the roof has been blown away by a typhoon.
The sense of discovery and intricacy within Skip is characteristic of traditional Kyoto. A former imperial capital, Kyoto has squandered much of its historic architectural legacy, yet it retains fragments and memories in the form of tiny alleys leading to hidden courtyards, inner gardens, and labyrinthine domestic interiors.
FOBA consistently infuses modern architectural forms with traditional Japanese values. Umebayashi grew up in an old Kyoto house and recalls his childhood with deep affection. Unconsciously, perhaps, he has absorbed that sense of tradition into his thinking, creating spiritual oases where old ways can be perpetuated in unabashedly modern settings.
The traditional Japanese interior with its raised tatami-mat floor, its wall-storage, and absence of furniture was a multipurpose room where family members learned mutual respect by living, eating, and sleeping all together in the same space. Something was lost when Western customs were adopted and social interaction gave way to a cellular structure in which every person and every activity has its own space.
In the Skip house, a traditional room was provided for the elderly uncle and the family shrine, while the teenage son and daughter each have their own retreat, incorporating lofts at the top of the house. Other rooms, however, are shared, and the house has an organic unity, opening up to nature at every point. Even architectural details such as the curving walls and soffits, sliding doors pierced by circular holes, and the torii-like roof balustrade evoke the past without mimicking it.
In these buildings, FOBA has shown itself to be as fecund in invention as it is respectful of context. Like other younger Japanese architects notably Hitoshi Abe, Jun Aoki, Shigeru Ban, and Kengo Kuma Umebayashi has found exciting ways to address cramped sites, open up interiors in subtle or dramatic ways, and draw on a legacy of architecture, space planning, and urbanism that many of his predecessors had ignored or swept aside.
FOBA is excelling in a country that is hobbled by bureaucratic regulation and degraded by reckless speculation, achieving a satisfying mix of originality and practicality, surprise and serenity. Each of its buildings is one-of-a-kind and an integral part of a larger whole; the firm's influence is sure to grow as its practice expands in scale, and beyond Japan.
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Michael Webb is an architecture critic based in Los Angeles.
This article is excerpted from FOBA/ Buildings, copyright © 2005, available from Princeton Architectural Press and at Amazon.com.
Organ, designed by Katsu Umebayashi, is an office building that houses his firm FOBA in Uji, southeast of Kyoto, Japan.
Photo: Osamu Tsuda
Organ is located on an otherwise undistinguished site.
Photo: Thomas Daniell
Skip is a house in northern Kyoto, designed by Katsu Umebayashi and his firm FOBA.
Photo: Hiroyuki Hirai
Skip is structured around internal stairs ending at a rooftop terrace.
The Skip house is a white concrete box that presents an enigmatic face to the street.
Photo: Hiroyuki Hirai
Skip's internal courtyard.
Photo: Hiroyuki Hirai
FOBA/ Buildings, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Cover design by Jan Haux; photos by Shinkenchiku-sha, Tohru Waki/ Shokokusha, and Hiroyuki Hirai
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